Monday, April 11, 2011

Where Have All the Starving Artists Gone?

In last week’s issue, New York Magazine did a spread of the New York City apartments where great writers and artists of the past lived while perfecting their craft. The point, it seemed from the rather humble nature of the abodes, was that the perfection of an art form often comes at the expense of certain basic luxuries. This is nothing new. Poverty, the concept of “the starving artist,” has long been a tenet of the glamour surrounding just about any art form: acting, writing, studio art. It’s one of the myths (well, is something mythic if it’s still true?) built into our understanding of artistry. A few years ago when I was working on the artwork for a biography on John Cheever, the image that captured my attention to the greatest degree was far and away the tiny, charmless room on Hudson Street where Cheever wrote before he made it big. On the other end of the highbrow low brow continuum, who doesn’t like to hear that story about how, before he landed Thelma and Louise, Brad Pitt wore a chicken costume to promote a fast food restaurant? Where they started makes where these people ended that much more noteworthy a journey, and what they were willing to give up in the name of pursuing something they loved makes their natural talent for that thing feel that much more epic. Being an artist is tough, we all seem to agree—if it wasn’t, every one would do it.

But counting your pennies no longer seems to be a requirement for joining the literary set. Some of the best MFA programs in the country will, if you’re one of the lucky ten or twelve students accepted into their elite programs, not only waive your tuition, but also give you a living stipend that hardly needs stretching given the cost of living in the places where these institutions are located. There’s now a writing major at all of the elite colleges. The art form of writing has come to be taken more seriously—as, well, an art form, instead of a noble hobby that requires breaking away from the establishment. Prestigious literary journals offer one week retreats with their more impressive contributors that will set fledgling writers back a grand or more. Even on the editorial side things aren’t nearly as tight as rumor or legend would have them. As an editorial assistant I have to do some budgeting, but when I play my cards right I can afford the occasional four dollar coffee or even, in a really good month, a piece of designer clothing.

This is obviously not any cause for complaint. As someone whose life is as enmeshed in the arts as mine is (and as someone who actually did minor in creative writing as an under grad), I would be an idiot to bemoan any of this. I think it’s wonderful that schools are making the serious and concentrated study of the craft of writing affordable, and I’ve looked into more than one of those retreats, pretty impressed that so many major writers would give their time and attention to the next generation, and I’m about to start paying tuition for a low residency MFA program because I truly believe it will be worth it. If I were to die a very, very rich woman tomorrow (having won the lottery some time in the next 24 hours) and had no heirs, I would likely leave the brunt of my dough to these institutions that foster talented young people. There’s also good reason to believe that this route is every wise a way to go as resigning yourself to poverty was back in the day—go to your nearest bookstore and I think you’ll be surprised at the high percentage of contemporary novelists whose bios boast MFAs. And maybe graduate school demands its own brand of chic poverty. (Having looked at the books and my financial forecast, it seems I’ll be going on far less trips and buying far less clothing now that a portion of my income will be funding my grad school dream, but that’s okay, it’s glamorous even, I’m a grad student.)

But looking at those pictures on the train this morning, my romantic side got the better of me. That noble striving evident in every speck of dust on the floor in those pictures, every smear of food on the plates in the cracked sinks, the shabbiness of the carpeting and the roaches you could practically feel looming right outside the frame, seemed to well, part of the point. Part of the fun. Part of what you inherit when you decide at the age of 5, 15, 28 or 40, I’m going to be a writer. Does finally getting something you’ve wanted your whole life mean less if you didn’t sacrifice as much to get it? Do practicality, fresh sheets, and a sound, well thought out financial plan have little place in the pursuit of becoming a writer? How starving need a starving artist be?

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